Of mea culpas

Published January 19, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

AS of this weekend, more snow has been predicted for Murree. A comprehensive traffic plan has reportedly been chalked out; a cap has been set on incoming vehicles; personnel and machinery deployed.

As is the norm for us, this is setting sentries to guard treasure that has already been stolen. Our TV screens, meanwhile, show views of a desolate Mall Road and its environs, silence where there ought to be gales of laughter, unlit tandoors that ought by rights be roasting meals at a frenetic pace.

As someone from the area, I cannot help but be reminded of Prufrock’s musings that every schoolchild knows: “In a minute there is time/ For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse”; and later “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,/ Have the strength to force the moment to its crises?”.

Purple prose, yes. But the fact is that after the meetings, and finger-pointing, and presenting of defences, no one yet has shown the courage to force the moment to its crisis. The universe that is Pakistan has already moved on. The 23 lives lost during last week’s blizzard buried and forgotten; the ponderous apparatus of the state bestirring itself far too late; and the citizenry probably having learned no lasting lessons.

If Murree is now decrying the loss of income, it is its own fault.

My guess is that during the coming days, the fires under the roasting spits will remain largely unlit; the tourists will stay at home; law-enforcement men will wait in the cold. But there is nothing at all to say that 11 or 12 months from now, when it’s snow season again, a similar tragedy might not recur if nature proves unbenevolent again.

The possible reasons behind the tragedy are myriad and many, but let’s make a sketchy attempt to unpick a few.

First, unhappily and with unbounded sympathy, the victims themselves: the thousands of unprepared and unaware, victims of their own poor decisions. People that have been driving these roads over half a century, in all sorts of conditions and in all sorts of weather, would not have made the attempt in anything short of an emergency. Only ignorance and overconfidence would make a novice mountain driver think that snow, sleet, and ice are simple to navigate — even in the best of weather.

It is being said, now, that the Met Department did not publicise warnings about the impending probable weather. This is not true. Warnings were being flashed across TV screens and on social media at least two days in advance. I know, because I heard them. But so many appeared not to have been listening.

Of the reports that law-enforcement tried to shut down the main road at least twice, who amongst us has not seen what happens when a self-confident crowd decides it wants to go a certain way? Law-enforcement has no choice but to step aside, or face its wrath.

Talking about shutting down the roads, the National Highways Authority is on record saying that it eventually shut down the main Murree Expressway, but the Murree hill station was overwhelmed by cars coming in through other entry points.

But there are only a handful of these: from the Islamabad/ Rawalpindi area, the Old Murree Road, and rural access roads from the Angoori and Simli Dam sides; then there is a main road coming into Jhikagali from Abbottabad; and another from AJK. Beyond this are narrow, circuitous, rural routes that only locals would know about. If one road could be closed off, what of the others?

If the people of Murree are now decrying the loss of income in the wake of the tragedy, it is all their own fault. There are shocking reports of a few locals dumping snow on the roads to hold up vehicles and then blackmailing people to help them become unstuck — these men, after all, know each and every turn and bottleneck of the routes, have jeeps and trucks with winches and snow chains, and know how to use them. There are spine-chilling accounts of hoteliers who demanded thousands of rupees for rooms that would otherwise be let for hundreds; of youths demanding money in the thousands for rent of their proficiency with snow shovels.

On the flip side, there were men who rushed to the rescue, law enforcers and locals alike. Were it not for these blessed ones, who knows how many more lives might have been lost, how much greater the tragedy? But, in the end, it is the state apparatus that must kick in. But instead of learning lessons after thorough inquiry and meticulous planning, all we have are knee-jerk, face-saving announcements such as that about a parking plaza. Locals are extremely doubtful that this, for example, will do any good at all.

Still, “in a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse”.

The writer is a journalist.


Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2022



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